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I just arrived from a weeklong trip to Dusseldorf in Germany to attend DRUPA the largest printing and graphic arts trade fair in the world. This is not related to my work in any way and I was just helping a friend who does not speak English. Nevertheless two things stick to my mind: first, it is possible to enter the motorway in Bristol, UK and leave it only in Dusseldorf (ok, I had to get into the ferry but let’s keep it simple) and second the graphic arts industries is huge. The fair itself is impressive with nineteen football sized halls choke full of packaging machinery, offset printers as big as train carriages, scaled up deskjet printers and I mean lorry scaled, and all kinds of weird small and large machines. Along with all this steel and paper sat an untold number of computers, of course. This industry seems to be in a middle of a transition from mechanical mammoths operated by highly skilled workers to computer driven robots with minimal human intervention. Interestingly there is a lot of human imitation going on with robots that mimic the exact human operations. The upside is that these robots can slot into existing machines and their operation is readily understood by the decision makers (read the cheque signing customers) but I feel that they were missing a trick there and soon someone is going to reinvent some of those processes and kill a few companies and job descriptions in the process. Even so industrial robotics is quite impressive these days and it is being combined with software in interesting ways in the printing industry.

But being a software person myself, it was interesting to watch hundreds and hundreds of user interfaces and, thankfully, have my friend explain what each machine was meant for. All the software present can be divided into four types: Graphic design software such and Photoshop, management information systems (MIS) for job scheduling and client management, large company machine control software and small company machine control software.

These two last categories were quite interesting. Large companies such as Heidelberg (the Cadillac of offset printers) have slick UIs with consistent and logical layouts. A bit X11-ish for my taste but undoubtedly carefully and professionally done if not a bit conservative and un-adventurous. All the action was definitely in the small company software. Here the variation and quality are staggering with some daring attempts but an overwhelming number of plain dreadful user interfaces. The better ones were based on direct manipulation with lots of drag and drop and CAD like interfaces, the others, well the others were as bad as they come with buttons of all sizes and shapes, with several fonts per square cm and even an empty ribbon with four or five small buttons at the left corner followed by a full screen of buttons sprinkled throughout the document area. Now, I am not exactly a UI guru but it is clear that something is wrong with UI design in that industry. In a way it is also an opportunity because sooner or later the software will go from being a necessary evil to a central part of their selling pitch but meanwhile I am sure there have already been a few UI caused accidents with some of those machines.

Another interesting tidbit is that the MIS market is quite large. I could not find a dominant company although Adobe kind of tries to do part of it with a PDF based workflow. The real market is a tapestry of small software shops with offerings starting at Windows UIs plastered on top of Clipper apps to the latest and greatest .NET 3.5 based apps with WPF and all that. There is a lot of competition and energy in this sector and as soon as I stepped near booth I was immediately stalked by slick sales men and women asking if I needed help. This area is much more sophisticated than machine control and the quality of software is quite high. It makes one wonder, with so much choice in the market, and I am talking over an hundred different offers, why would anyone want to build an in-house scheduling application these days?

Also interesting was the OS distribution. In all hundreds of booths I visited (and my friend made sure I visited nearly all of them) I only saw Vista in two MIS offerings. Windows XP was everywhere even in brand new concept systems belonging to the largest companies. Of course I wasn’t counting and this may be a bit unfair but all the big names were being shown on XP and not on Vista. Maybe it is all those drivers for the controllers?

Here are a couple of links if you want to know more about DRUPA and, if you live near Dusseldorf and like heavy machinery then you can visit until 11/06/2008.

The fair’s site: http://www.drupa.com/
Fair’s profile:
http://www.messe-duesseldorf.de/drupa08/pdf/veranstaltungsstrukturdaten_2.pdf (pdf)